Tempo is Fundamental

Day 237 Week 34 Q3 Saturday, August 26, 2023

All music has some sort of a pulse. This is sometimes called tempo. When music has no pulse, it is like a person with no pulse; they are sort of dead. Seriously if anyone wants to learn a piece of music, they do need to know what the tempo is. Of course, they could learn how to play something slowly and then speed up as they gain ability, but ultimately, it is not a score that is a piece of music; it is the performance. Just as a map of Chicago can give you a sense of the neighborhoods, size, and lake, it is not the same as traveling around Chicago.  The same is true for the score. You can tell you a lot, but it is not the same thing as being there. Perhaps this is why it is easier for a performer to earn a living as a composer.

Some composers start with manuscript paper or a computer program that permits notation creation. On the other hand, most popular musicians play around with a musical instrument until they find what you’re looking for and iterate it into a song. Is a song a piece of music? You bet it is. In fact, songwriters are far more likely to hear their music performed than composers. This is because they perform them themselves and with their colleagues.

But just as a map of Chicago will help you get around, a score will also help you get around a piece of music. Just as a map is an abstraction of a city or a place, so is the score of a song. This permits the songwriter to put their music under a microscope, examine it and improve it differently than a recording.

Having a recording and a score together provides the greatest understanding of what is happening in a piece of music.  Having multiple recordings representing multiple performances is also helpful, just as having multiple scores representing multiple arrangements is very helpful.

In general, the more ways you can look at something, the more perspective you gain and the better your understanding. But there is a gigantic difference between starting with a score and starting with a performance. And the difference begins with a single number, called the tempo. Tempo is generally expressed in terms of how many beats are in a minute.  The most fundamental way to determine the tempo is to simply tap your foot and count how many times you tapped it in a minute while listening to or playing a piece of music.

But we are now in an age where applications on our computers, phones and tablets can do this for us. The counting and timing, that is. It is still faster to tap your finger, a mouse, or a keyboard than to use a piece of software to tell you how many beats per minute.

This is important because the tempo is fundamental.